EASTERN TURKEY 20th May-1st June 2010
by John Rayner
White-throated Robin (Photo courtesy of Pete Worthy)
Many birding groups have visited Eastern Turkey so the area is well documented but most birders travel a conventional circular route and take at least 14 days to fit in all the main sites. We had less time available but managed to see all our targets, including many special birds on the very limits of their range, by hiring a car on a one-way drop off basis. As this is not a common practise a detailed trip report has been prepared.
In the event this trip took a great deal of organisation. Hiring a car for 10 days on a one-way drop off basis proved to be something of a problem. Following the recent World recession, and consequent reduction in tourism, car hire companies across the board had cut their fleets considerably and we only found one company (Avis) who were prepared to offer anything larger than a Ford Focus, which was unsuitable for a team of 5. So, eventually, we picked up a 9-seater Volkswagen Caravelle (£158 each including all insurances and waivers) in Adana and dropped it off in Trabzon 10 days later with an additional 3482km (2150 miles) on the clock. We paid extra for 3 drivers (£12 each) and spreading the driving load over such a distance proved to be invaluable.
Flights were a little easier to organise using Pegasus Airlines from Stansted to Istanbul, then an internal flight to Adana (£202 each). But a further slight complication arose in that one member of the party wanted a pre-trip holiday in Istanbul with his wife. So it was that 4 members of the team (Neil Marshall, John Rayner, Doug Smith and Fred Wake) flew from Stansted to Istanbul on 20th May to meet Tony Armstrong who had flown out 3 days earlier.
We all bought tourist visas at Sabiha Gocken airport, Istanbul (10 Euros). We navigated using the map that came with The Rough Guide and found it perfectly satisfactory. Although we covered high mileage in 10 days it never felt like we were sat in the car all day long. We did have a couple of dedicated long mileage days but still managed some brilliant birding on those days as well and, in the main, avoided night driving. The Turkish infrastructure is good with plenty of toll motorways (in the Mediterranean region) and with dual carriageways throughout. In particular there are on-going improvements to the dual carriageway from Gaziantep all the way to Cizre on the Iraqi border, which will speed up future trips considerably.
We took with us the standard site and field guides: Finding Birds in Eastern Turkey (Gosney), Birdwatchers' Guide to Turkey (Prion), Collins Bird Guide and photocopies of many trip reports, all of which are easily accessible on the internet.
There is a strong military presence in southeast and eastern Anatolia regions and clashes with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) still occur. Although we passed through these areas and close by some sensitive borders (the main road actually runs alongside the Syrian border for some distance around Nusaybin) we only passed a few police or army check points. On every occasion we were waved through without hassle and in friendly fashion once we said “English” and “tourist”. We followed advice when leaving Idil and avoided the many check points on the more direct route north. Instead we detoured northeast then northwest via Midyat, Batman and Siirt. We were moved on at an impromptu lunchtime stop near Midyat because it was too near a hill top listening post and we were watched through binoculars from a well disguised army fox hole built from lava at Serpmetas lava fields, then told to leave. One Turk found a novel way to disturb our roadside birding near Hotel Genesis, Sivrikaya by firing 10 rounds from the driver’s window (thankfully into the air). However, we found Turkish people in general and Kurdish people in particular, to be extremely friendly and welcoming. Indeed the main problem was to get on with birding whilst politely refusing the many offers of tea (cay) or to share food. In eastern Anatolia very little English is spoken and we came across only a handful of western Europeans, mostly birders, outside of Istanbul. In many places people just stopped and stared as we were obviously quite a novelty.
The exchange rate during our stay was approximately 2.20TL / pound sterling. Fuel was very expensive, approximately 3.00 – 3.20TL per litre (an eye-watering £1.46/litre or £6.55/gallon for those still working in ‘old money’). Bizarrely it seemed to get more expensive as we approached the borders of Turkey’s oil rich neighbours, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
We all ate salads and ice-creams and no-one had ‘Sultan’s Revenge’ but we always avoided tap water and used bottled water throughout (except at Ridos Spa where the tap water was probably purer than bottled). Apart from the ubiquitous kebabs (particularly good in Gaziantep) we also had fresh sea bream (chopra) and particularly liked to eat sutlac (a cold rice pudding sprinkled with crushed hazel nuts) on our frequent coffee stops.
Only a very few biting insects were encountered, mostly round the Euphrates. Although this is a low risk malaria zone taking Chloroquin is probably un-necessary at this time of year (although a course only costs £2 or so).
We had read a lot about vicious Anatolian sheepdogs and the general advice was to treat them as the locals do by hurling rocks at them. In the event we only came close to one huge dog whilst out of the vehicle, with the apt name of ‘Baddi’. He was bigger than his shepherd boy owner and with the temperament of a pussy cat. However, our vehicle was chased a few times by less friendly individuals complete with punk-style, rusty, nail-studded wolf collars and we were glad we weren’t out in the field when these were around!
There is little within this report on wildlife other than birds. The butterflies and alpine flora were simply stunning but we didn’t have either the time or the expertise for fuller identifications.
I (John Rayner) provided most of the photographs and mention must be made of my bird photography - mediocre at best as I simply hand hold a Canon compact to my telescope and hope. Therefore, special thanks to Pete Worthy for allowing me to use his much better photographs to enhance this report.
We pre-booked accommodations in Istanbul and Adana to minimised hassle, as we had late-ish arrival times at both airports. Also we booked Basar Hassan to provide transport and guide up/down Demirkazik Mountain. This is not absolutely necessary as the Snowcocks were still putting on a show as we descended at 07.30. However, accommodation in this area is limited.
No other accommodation was booked in advance, the norm being about 40-50TL for a double room on a bed and breakfast basis (approx £9 - £11 each). We did notice that prices in general were about 20% dearer than the 2009 Rough Guide suggested but at many hotels prices were negotiable.
Despite apparently good signage we failed to find The Tourist Information Centre, at Isliki. This would have been the most convenient accommodation and there is an arrowed sign “Tourist Information Centre 3 kilometres” in Isliki village but the trail then went cold. Perhaps we would have done better in daylight. (Stop press. We just heard of another group who had similar problems a week after us).
We found hotels in Van to be much more expensive than the 2009 Rough Guide suggested. Lake Van is a bit of a tourist area though.
The cheapest night was at Ishak Pasha close to the Iranian border, “Murat Camping and Hotel” (15TL per person with breakfast 8TL) It is basic but in a superb location and thus recommended.
Hotel Genesis is 5k North of Sivrikaya in the next village of Camlik (N.B. At least 1 trip report erroneously states it is 5k south of Sivrikaya). It is well positioned for Caucasian Grouse and has Green Warblers in the woods at the back. However, it was still closed in May and did not open till 1st June. Its sister hotel, The Ridos Thermal Hotel and Spa, is 21k further north at Isikdere. This is very plush but we negotiated a reasonable rate of 92TL p.p.p.n. for a mini-suite on a bed, breakfast and evening meal basis. This equated to £42 B, B & E and, with sumptuous food, this was far a better rate than one could get for an English equivalent.
The Rough Guide suggests that some budget hotels in Trabzon may double as brothels. We are not suggesting this is the case with Hotel Elegante but they don’t appear to have many rooms other than singles with double beds (!) and two or three likely ‘Natashas’ did visit the restaurant. We were well out of it on the 6th floor! This hotel is very convenient for the airport and gave us an excellent last night meal in its restaurant.
(All hotel rates per person)
28 May. Edremit Marshes, Lake Ercek and Bendimahe Marshes. Serpmetas Lava Fields. Birded Tendurek Gecidi Pass (2644m) and drove close to Iranian border with views of Mount Ararat then via Dogubayazit to Ishak Pasha Palace. Night Murat Camping and Hotel in an excellent location just below palace. (15TL room only).
29 May. Birded slopes above Ishak Pasha till noon then long drive west via Agri, Eleskirt, Ezerum. Birded Gelinkaya. Drove north over various passes (Sac, Agziacik, Ovitdagi Gecidi) to Hotel Genesis near Sivrikaya - Closed till 1st June! Drove north 21k to expensive (but excellent|) Ridos Hotel, Ikizdere (Negotiated 92TL for a mini-suite and sumptuous food).
30 May. Drove 2k south of Sivrikaya to bird alpine slopes there. South to Ispir and River Coruh Valley. Visited Hotel Genesis woodland. 2nd Night Ridos Hotel, Ikizdere.
31 May. Early start to bird Sivrikaya, Hotel Genesis woodland. Drove northwest to Black Sea coast near Rize, then west to Trabzon and south to Sumela Monastery. Returned car to Avis at Trabzon Airport (+3482k). Night Hotel Elegante, Trabzon (good restaurant and convenient for airport). (50TL B&B for a single)
1st Jun. Depart Trabzon at 06.00 arrived Istanbul 07.45. Depart Istanbul 10.20 arrived Stansted 12.10
Summary of the tour
20th May. We arrived late in Istanbul after our pre-arranged taxi transfer failed to show at Sabiha Gocken airport and met up with Tony A. for a late meal. Not as early to bed as we would have liked but it was to be a leisurely sight-seeing day tomorrow.
21st May. Our hotel was well positioned in the Sultanhamet district within easy walking distance of the main tourist attractions. Telescopes were soon set up on the roof terrace during breakfast as we watched rafts of Yelkouan Shearwaters streaming out of the Black Sea and heading down the Bosphorus. We did the tourist route and visited the Blue Mosque, Old Mosque, and Topkapi Palace with lunch at the famous Pudding Shop. Topkapi Palace grounds held numbers of Ring-necked Parakeets with the occasional Alexandrine Parakeet thrown in. Better than these introductions was the Olive-tree Warbler singing loudly near the Harem entrance.
Above: Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Above: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
A few other birds were seen including the only Shag (ssp. desmarestii) of the trip at Galata Bridge but birding hadn’t really started yet. Later, after a 1 hour evening flight to Adana, we picked up our hire car and found our down town hotel.
22nd May. After an early breakfast we hit the road - but west, not east. Good toll motorways, passing Tarsus and Mersin, soon had us at Demircili graveyard, a favourite birding site from many trip reports. Here in the pine woods opposite, we scored quickly with White-spectacled Bulbul, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Ruppell’s Warbler, Sombre Tit and nesting Kruper’s Nuthatches.
Above: Pine woods, Demircili
Having hit all the targets we moved on and ate our picnic lunch in a tower hide overlooking Goksu Delta. A time-waster in retrospect at the wrong time of day. Heat haze hampered duck identification and the best we could find were 2 White Pelicans, a female Red-crested Pochard, a Black Francolin perched out singing and many Graceful Prinias and Zitting Cisticolas
Above: Tower hide, Goksu Delta
Above: Black Francolin, Gosku Delta (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
Time to move, again using the excellent motorway system, to head north to Cukurbag. Here we were met by our guide Basar Hassan and even managed a couple of hours birding till dusk up the lower parts of the gorge at Demerazik mountain, finding our first Red-fronted Serins, Rock Sparrows and Rock Bunting. Back for a relaxed evening meal with Basar and his family then to bed with alarms set for a ridiculous hour.
23rd May. Alarms set for 03.15 and we trundled up Demerkazik Mountain in relays of 3 in an old oil-burning Lada Riva. At 2150 metres the temperature was a not unpleasant 6 degrees and just after dawn we found our first Caspian Snowcocks. Up to 11 were seen as they put on a great display, sometimes as close as 200m.
Above: Caspian Snowcock, Demerkazik
Above: Red-fronted Serin, Demerazik Gorge (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
The supporting cast included Red-fronted Serins, Snowfinches and Alpine Accentors with a group of Ibex climbing nimbly on the near vertical crags above but Radde’s Accentor remained elusive. We were assured they would be found on the descent down the gorge but no sign of them today - this bird was to become a problem later in the trip! In fact we saw very little during the descent of the gorge, which is narrow, steep-sided and a little hands-on in places. With hindsight we would probably have had better birding by walking back down the driveable track. We returned to Oz Safak Pension for a late breakfast then out again on dirt roads around Cukurbag seeking Crimson-winged Finches and White-throated Robins. The many Black-eared Wheatears here included a small number of Finsch’s Wheatears.
Above: Demerkazik Gorge entrance
Above: Descent of Demerkazik Gorge (it’s not all like this!)
Above: White-throated Robin, Cukurbag (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
Above: Black-eared Wheatear (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
We eventually departed Oz Safak at 16.10 for a quite long drive east to the end of the motorway at Gaziantep. Despite decent signage we had great difficulty finding our preferred accommodation, ‘The Tourist Information Centre’ at Isliki so had to back track and ended up at a hotel in Gaziantep. (N.B. Other groups have also recently failed to find this accommodation in Isikli).
24th May. Another early start and we were soon in superb habitat just off the new quarry road at Durnalik. This road runs parallel to the valley as shown in Gosney’s guide and gives easier access. It was an excellent area for both Western and Eastern Rock Nuthatches. Upcher’s Warblers, Black-headed and Cinereous Buntings were reasonably plentiful and we found both Syrian Woodpecker and Eastern Orphean Warbler nesting. A Chukar wandered by but Pale Rock Sparrows didn’t show.
Above: Eastern Rock Nuthatch (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
Above: Cinereous Bunting, Durnalik
Above: Black-headed Bunting, Durnalik
We continued the search for Pale Rock Sparrow and eventually turned down a track on the left hand side just after a small quarry on the approach road to the main quarry. This proved successful with Pale Rock Sparrow, Rufous Bush Chat and Bimaculated Lark all added to the growing list. Back in Isikli village we bought provisions but didn’t notice ‘The Tourist Information Centre’ even in daylight. We parked down by the side of the village stores and walked up an obvious valley. Here we found our target, the recently split Kurdish (Red-tailed) Wheatear Oenanthe xanthopryma, a family party no less, with both parents feeding 2 juveniles. We also found a Cardinal here, Europe’s largest fritillary and one of the easier butterflies to identify.
Above: Cardinal, Isikli
Mid afternoon we called back to Gaziantep to pick up luggage then set out for the short 50 minute hop to Birecik to check in at the Merkalim Motel by the bridge over the Euphrates. We exchanged information here with other birders then immediately went out to the nearby Gravel Works lagoons on the northwest bank for an excellent couple of hours birding. The list here was long but goodies included many Squacco Herons, Little Bitterns and Pygmy Cormorants, a party of Bald Ibis from the nearby breeding programme, our only Moustached Warblers of the trip, Pied Kingfishers, Dead Sea Sparrows and last but not least 4 Iraq Babblers, right on the edge of their restricted range.
Above: Gravel Works Lagoons, Birecik
Above: Bald Ibis, Birecik
Above: Pygmy Cormorants, Birecik (photograph courtesy of Pete Worthy)
There was still time to drive over the Euphrates Bridge to visit the famous Gulhame Tea Gardens. It was obvious to the staff we were birders but best to play it cool here and first order some tea. Eventually one of the waiters pointed up a nearby tree and there was a Pale (Bruce’s) Scops Owl in full view. Although the light was fading this was a good time to watch as it roused itself from daytime roosting and finally flew at 19.42. So we returned to the noisy Merkalim Motel, which is also a trucker’s café and lorry/coach stop. The night was punctuated by loud music and tannoy messages plus, for some bizarre reason, someone moving furniture on the floor above all night long.
Above: Pale Scops Owl, Birecik
25th May. As we couldn’t sleep we were out early and walked up the Bald Ibis Centre wadi. Here we easily found Menetries’ Warbler but it took quite a while to flush a See-see Partridge that had come down to drink. A better option was to take one of the tracks to the top of the wadi and scan the grassy plateaus. Here we found another See-see singing from a distant rocky perch. During last night’s exchange of information we had been tipped off where to look for Yellow-throated Sparrow (Chestnut-winged Petronia). We had no luck on our visit but there was compensation in the form of a passing Lesser-spotted Eagle with a nesting colony of Little Swifts on the cliffs in Birecik. We had a full breakfast at Merkalim café then easily found Yellow-throated Sparrow at another site down by an Oto petrol station (2nd right turn north of Ibis centre).
Above: See-see Partridge habitat
Above: Yellow-throated Sparrow (Chestnut-winged Petronia), Birecik
It was getting hot so, driving through extensive pistachio groves, we had a chill-out lunch break 40km to the north at the picturesque Eski Halfeti where many small villages were submerged after the damming of the Euphrates. Then back to Birecik to try our luck on the southeast side of the river. Much the same birds here as last night with the addition of a family party of Ferruginous Ducks and a male Garganey. Two Yellow-throated Sparrows, away from the pistachio fields, were a surprise here. A nice relaxing meal on the banks of the Euphrates capped a splendid day. A second night at the Merkalim Motel - and they were still moving the furniture around upstairs into the small hours!!
Above: Transporting pistachios, Birecik
Above: Eski Halfeti
Above: Evening by River Euphrates, Birecik